Three people were buried — and two of those people died — in a trench collapse Tuesday at a construction site in Northwest Boise.
Trench collapses at construction sites in the Treasure Valley are rare, says Paul Roberts, division chief of special operations for the Boise Fire Department.
Roberts has been with the department about 15 years, and he couldn’t immediately recall other similar incidents. He described trench collapses as a high-risk, low-frequency emergencies.
The fire department’s Technical Rescue Team responds to emergencies throughout the region. They train regularly on trench collapses and the team is “very proficient,” Roberts said.
The Technical Rescue Team has 30 people, and at least five of those people (and often up to 10) are on duty on any given day. They are mainly based at Station 7 near the Boise Airport.
The first engine to arrive at the trench collapse Tuesday was from Station 16 on Glenwood Street in Garden City, followed by Station 5 in Downtown Boise. Roberts activated the Technical Rescue Team.
An estimated 50 to 60 people from numerous local agencies were involved in Tuesday’s rescue and recovery efforts, including Eagle Fire Department, Boise Police, Ada County Paramedics, Ada County Highway District and Ada County Coroner’s Office.
Roberts said the specialized equipment used in trench collapses includes pneumatic air shores and wood panels to stabilize the trench.
“So we can enter that trench safely without fear of a secondary type collapse burying our firefighters,” he said. Their greatest concern is for the safety of the public and firefighters.
Due to the concern about ground vibration causing a second collapse, they shut off equipment and blocked the road to traffic Tuesday evening. The potential for second collapses is so great that one of rescuers’ first actions is to gain control of the scene, moving workers and the public out of the area.
Some who observed firefighters using shovels and buckets to dig out the victims wondered why they didn’t use heavy equipment, such as a backhoe.
“That machinery does not know the difference between dirt, rock and a human body,” Roberts said.
People at the scene were able to show the rescue team where the two workers were buried so they had some idea where to dig. The person who survived wasn’t fully buried. Roberts didn’t see the man but received information he was buried from about the hips down, and his fellow construction workers came immediately to his aid.